Israel poised to begin exiting occupied land


JERUSALEM -- They aren't much, these places Israel is supposed to turn over to the Palestinians starting tomorrow.

Gaza is a flat, charmless strip a bit wider than Assateague Island, with ghettos of Calcutta-like crowding and pits filled with rotting garbage.

Jericho has the grace of shade and handsome citrus orchards. But it moves with Third World indolence, gripped most of the year by stupefying heat at the lowest spot on earth. Even the buildings seem wilted.

But when Israeli troops and civil servants move out of these areas -- at least a symbolic beginning is expected tomorrow -- it will mark a turn in a conflict that has preoccupied the world like a modern biblical tale.

It is a tale magnified by its passions: two peoples who claim the same land, paralyzed by mutual hatred and religious self-certainty, looking for support from other nations and vindication by their own god.

"Everyone wants peace," Asad Saftawi, a Palestinian leader, said at his home in the Gaza Strip in June. Four months later, he was killed by fellow Palestinians, proof he was wrong.

On a practical level, the pullout dictated by the Sept. 13 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization will begin the dismantling of an occupation that has plagued all parties for 26 years.

The most optimistic see this as the start of a process that will lead to a new Middle East, a region free of the warfare that has been the cadence of its history, a place of Europe-like ease through borders and business deals struck between old military foes.

The most pessimistic see this as too little, too late, a feeble Band-Aid over a major hemorrhage. It fails to bring either justice to Palestinians or peace to Israelis, and will wither in the heat of further violence, they say.

Ironically, on the very eve of the start of the withdrawal, the pessimists hold sway. Three months ago joyful Jewish and Arab celebrants surged into the streets. Today, a vote on the peace plan likely would fail, rejected by both Israelis and Palestinians.

Violence from the political fringes has soured the enthusiasm. It is left to two hard-line warriors, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, to push the deal through. Neither is motivated by love for the other; both see their arrangement as the best of unpleasant choices.

"Nothing will deter this government and me from our determination to implement the agreement," Mr. Rabin said last week as an upsurge of violence conspired against him.

These two old enemies are expected to meet today in Cairo to nudge the process along. Neither side is ready for a wholesale handover of authority in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. But they are likely to transfer at least some authority in the areas.

Israel promised to begin withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip tomorrow, and complete it within four months, by April 13.

By July 13, according to their agreement, Israel will pull back from populated Arab areas in the rest of the West Bank, and Palestinians will hold an election for an autonomous Palestinian Council.

"We have to finish the peace process as quickly as possible," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Friday. "I believe that despite the difficulties, we can overcome the differences."

The withdrawal that sounds so bold today was expected by most Israelis 26 years ago. Immediately after Israel rolled with stunning speed into Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish leaders planned to trade most of the land in return for peace.

"Everything is negotiable," Abba Eban, then foreign minister, declared at the time.

'Sell them for peace'

"The value of the [captured areas] was that you could sell them for peace," Mr. Eban, now a lecturer at George Washington University, said this week by telephone from his home in New York. "There never was a feeling of holding onto the whole thing."

Israel agreed to trade the Sinai at Camp David in 1978, giving back most of that desert peninsula to Egypt for a peace treaty with its largest Arab neighbor.

But the booty of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was a siren, an attraction dangerous to hold but too hard to give up. The Jewish state would not annex an area then filled with 1 million Arabs, but neither could it bring itself to let the property go.

Inevitably, hooks of permanence were sunk in the land. The Labor government started settlements as outposts of defense against the next Arab invasion. They were filled by religious Jews who claimed a biblical title to the land and by nationalist Zionists eager to expand the borders of Israel.

Israel's indecision was abetted by Arabs, who spurned chances to negotiate and kept beating the drums of war.

The paralysis led to what is now one of the longest military occupations since World War II. It is condemned by other nations, has divided the Jewish people, and turned the Palestinians increasingly desperate and bitter.

Ultimately, it was violence that begat peace.

The growing Palestinian resentment burst out Dec. 9, 1987, when an Israeli truck plowed into a station wagon of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, killing four, igniting the tinderbox that squalid Gaza had become. Palestinians swarmed into the streets to protest. The uprising, or "intifada," was on.

It was a match of persistence against power. Israel had the weapons, the soldiers and the weight of absolute rule. The Palestinians had the endurance of those with no other hope, and a willingness to pay with their lives. In six years of the intifada, 1,184 Palestinians and 131 Israelis were killed.

Price too high

Ultimately, for Israel, the price was too high: the pall of fear cast over daily life, the succession of funerals, the revulsion at its proud army shooting children who were throwing stones. When Mr. Rabin campaigned in June 1992 on a promise to exchange territory for peace, Israelis gratefully took him up on his pledge.

"The intifada took the Palestinians from a situation that was painful for them and not painful for the Israelis, to a situation where both sides were uncomfortable," said Ghassan Khatib, a member of the Palestinian peace negotiating team. "The Israelis found out there was no escape from negotiating."

Mr. Rabin pursued his goal, first publicly in Washington, then secretly in Norway. When the agreement was announced Sept. 13, a sense of euphoria swept a land accustomed to the gloom of unending strife.

But soon after, Palestinians began to wonder what the deal brought. In Jericho and the Gaza Strip, they will control just 7 percent of the occupied territories. The rest of the area is dotted with 130 Jewish settlements, which Israel has said will stay.

With the army continuing to patrol those fenced and guarded enclaves, saying who comes and goes and setting the rules, Jewish presence may not seem much different to the Palestinians. The violence of the last several months has fed that view.

"With all the violence in the occupied territories, our people don't care any more if the Dec. 13 date is abided by or not," said a discouraged editorial in the Arabic daily An-Nahar last week. "They don't care if the whole agreement is implemented or not."

Escape routes

The bitter wrangling over the size of autonomous Jericho, which is supposed to be only a first, temporary step, does not bode well for execution of the rest of the agreement. Already, top Israeli officials are setting up escape routes.

"I consider [Gaza and Jericho] to be a test case" before returning the rest of the West Bank, said Ehud Barak, the Israeli chief of staff. But he acknowledged, "It is clear to us that even if the test fails, it is very difficult to turn the wheels back."

Israel insists the autonomy will not lead to a Palestinian state, even though that seems the inevitable end. But Palestinians might not like the state they would get.

The PLO is going through great molting pains as it tries to transform itself from a guerrilla group to a civil government, but the principles of democracy seem far from assured.

Israelis, too, are wondering what they have won from the agreement. Extremist Palestinian groups are so far denying the peace Israel sought; the number of attacks has risen, not dropped.

None of Mr. Arafat's statements since the signing -- he still calls for a Palestinian state and a sharing of Jerusalem -- have soothed Israelis. No one has yet confidently declared the intifada at an end.

Perhaps too much blood has been shed. Perhaps there is too much hatred for it to work. At a Jewish settlement near Arab Hebron, where two Israelis and four Palestinians were killed in the last two weeks, Merav Sagan, a 38-year-old mother of four, expressed the anger that still festers.

Festering anger

"They should go away from here," she said of Arabs. "I'm willing to buy their property, to pay for them to go. But they should leave. There's no way to live together now. No way."

Israelis face uncertainty about their own government. Mr. Rabin's thin ruling coalition stands on "chicken legs," as one columnist put it.

Israeli citizens have poured into the street in recent weeks, closing roads, spilling out their invectives against Arabs and Mr. Rabin over booming loudspeakers. The prime minister is portrayed on a huge poster wearing a Palestinian headdress.

Opponents are determined to trample the peace plan under the feet of funeral processions. Attacks have come from extreme Jewish settlers and extreme Palestinian radicals. Since the agreement was signed, 36 Palestinians and 14 Israelis had been killed.

'Hard months ahead'

"We have six to nine bitter and hard months ahead," predicted Yoel Marcus, writing in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "This is a transitory period in which any lunatic and fanatic will try to prove he is the boss in the field."

But the determination of the government sits on a simple lack of choice.

"There's nothing to go back to," argues Mr. Eban, the elder statesman who lobbied the United Nations for the partition of Palestine five decades ago. "The advantages ahead are great. The perils of going back are even greater. There's a total absence of viable alternatives."

If the peace process survives, it may eventually close the chapter that began with Israel's greatest triumph and led to its longest moral trap.

"In this great period of change, all forecasts still seem to be equally wild," commentator Gideon Summet said in Ha'aretz. "But there can be no doubt: what our noses catch is the charred smell of a period coming to an end."

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